Saturday, September 1, 2012

Two Face and the Importance of Our Past

Everyone has a past. Some of us are defined by them. From time to time I've come across Character Sheets on the web. Forms that ask you to fill out every single detail about a character, from the house they grew up in to their favorite food. I've always hated these. Why would you spend hours staring at a piece of paper trying to decide what food best explains your characters personality? Does a love of pizza say someone is out going? Can't a rich guy love mac & cheese? Why aganoize over something that will likely never come up in your story?

Most of these character sheets aren't meant to be filled out line by line, but instead help get the mental wheels turning, each question acts as prompt to get us to consider aspects of a character we have yet to think about. And almost all of them deal with a character's past.

Harvey Dent

Anyone who's been following this site (if they exist) will know that I've been on a bit of Batman kick lately. Reading some of the comics I've missed and re-watching the animated series from the nineties One of the thing's I've really enjoyed about the animated series is watching their take on certain story arcs, how they've condensed some, expanded others, and made alterations for the show to be more family friendly..

I've never really cared about Two-Face. He never seemed that interesting to me, a little one note (or two note in his case.) So he was scarred, and flipped a coin, big deal. I never thought it was interesting, just kind of stupid and sad. I thought Nolan's Dark Knight did a good job of humanizing the character and his struggle, but I tend to chalk that up more to Nolan than the character.

In the cartoon however we get to see a lot more of him. For starters he doesn't even become Two Face until a third of the way into the first season. The writers had the foresight to include him in early on as regular old Harvey Dent. We see him as the star D.A. helping out Gotham, working along side Batman and Bruce Wayne alike. Those of us who know his fate are rewarded with seeing the seed of something we know will blossom into fruition later. Those who are experiencing the story for the first time get the emotional payoff of seeing a character they've gotten to know and respect be tormented by his inner soul, and ultimately changed for the worse because of it.

The cartoon goes one step beyond the acid incident and shows that the character has real mental issues and a suppressed inner dark side. That the acid doesn't warp his mind so much as it unlocks the cage of the demons already present. It hurts Harvey to the point where he doesn't care anymore, where he's lost the will and reason to fight the endless war against his inner torments.

Further more the cartoon reminds us as his story continues of his old days as Harvey. In one of the best episodes of the cartoon "Almost Got 'im" we see Two Face, The Penguin, Killer Croc and The Joker sitting around playing cards telling stories of how they almost defeated Batman. Poison Ivy walks in, much to the displeasure of Harvey Dent. He says something like "Half of me wants to strangle you," Poison Ivy assuming he's referring to the scarred side asks about the other. Two face turns to her and says the other half wants to burn her alive. When the others gathered around the table give her a "what was that about" look she says they used to date, referring to an earlier episode that served as Poison Ivy's origin. In another episode Hugo Strange attempts to auction off the identity of Batman to The Joker, The Penguin and Two Face. When they learn it's Bruce Wayne, Two Face rejects this, saying that he's known Bruce for years and that he could never be Batman.

In every case the character's past, both pre- and during the show inform his motives and methods of operation. More importantly it separates him being just another flat villain with a gimmick.

Captain America and The Doctor

We see this in other characters as well. Almost everything about Captain America is defined by his past. From his patriotic duty, to his manners and fashion, to the pain he carries from the world and loved ones he lost. His past has made him a character displaced in time, and made him all the more interesting because of it. He not only is defined by his past, he's the definition of that era to others. He's a relic, forced to carry around the burden of an old soul and we love him all the more because of it.

In the reboot/relaunch of Doctor Who we have a much darker and tortured Doctor who's just come off the Time War. A hero that has spent his impossibly long life saving countless others is now burdened by not only the guilt of failing to save his own people, but the remorse of knowing he was the one that ended them. The Classic Whos have their charm, and the character of the Doctor is brilliant in a mad genius sort of way, but it comes off thin in light of the complexities of the modern Doctor. Davies and Moffat have crafted a character consumed by guilt and loneliness, transforming the often dull Companions from a cheap excuse to explain things to the viewer to a valued part of the Doctor's development. Instead of being a barely disguised stand in, the companion has a real reason for being there in helping to soften The Doctor, remind him what he is fighting for and helping to stave off his crippling loneliness.

Past, Present and Future

Our character's past can be more than a blurb in their file or a list of likes and dislikes. By giving our characters real struggles not just in the present but throughout their life we create deeper characters with richer motives. We get invested in their struggle because we know where they came from and want to see even more where there are going.

Going once more back to the Batman cartoon, we see multiple episodes that fill in the gap of Bruce Wayne's life between the time he left Gotham and returned. We see he was not simply a brooding loner, but that he forged lasting connections with people. He had multiple father figures that he deeply respected, helping to not only train him to eventually become Batman, but sooth the wound of his missing father, taken from him far too soon. You could also argue that the lack of his mother, and her sudden departure from his life informs his many conflicted love affairs with the women (often villains) in his life. In every case the past of the character adds to a richer and more diverse person.

Challenge yourself to go farther back in your character's lives and see what struggles emerge. Not every character is going to have one, and that's okay. Some characters become defined by their peaceful past being shattered by their present misfortune, as in almost every post-apocalyptic story. But for those characters that do have a past, let your reader know. And if you have the opportunity, show us a character like Harvey Dent, before he is transformed into Two Face. We can go on their journey with them, as opposed to being informed at the last minute why we should care.

No comments:

Post a Comment